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Eyjafjallajokull - Volcanoes and the Principle of Imminent Collapse
No the end of the world in not being heralded by the eruption of the Iceland volcano beneath the Eyjafjallajokull glacier. When the eruption started on March 20 in southern Iceland, it melted a sizable a hole in the ice causing localized flooding as the melt water rushed toward the sea. It also began to erupt massive quantities of ash that rose high into the atmosphere carried on the updrafts created by its own heat. As far as volcanic eruptions go, it was not such a big deal. The big deal was that we have come to rely on systems that depend on the absence of volcanic ash in the atmosphere.
Millions of people around the globe were scheduled to fly somewhere else on tens of thousands of flights. Some were going away on vacations or business trips that would have to be cancelled or postpones. At the very least they would have to try to make their trips via alternate mode of transport.
Many thousands of people were on their ways home. They were in unfamiliar cities in distant countries and would have an unplanned layover while the skies cleared. Some were halted in transit, stranded in airports waiting for the next leg in their trip.
The problem is that volcanic ash and jet engines do not work well together. An engine that ingests a sufficient quantity of ash may stall making the huge jetliner into a glider that must land without power. This is usually called a crash landing or just a crash. The outcomes are rarely good.
The European continent in directly in the path of the drifting ash cloud that has shutdown most of the airports there. The Western Hemisphere has so far been spared the effects of this disruption. However, eventually the ash that is high in the atmosphere will circuit the globe making a hazy ring around the northern hemisphere centered on a latitude of 66 degrees North. If the ash eruption subsides quickly, its long term effects will be minimal and EU citizens will once again be able to travel by air and Western Hemisphere citizen will be able to visit Europe and come home in the accustomed 6 to 10 hours of flying.
Meanwhile, there will be the long days that consume the time and resources of the stranded travelers. We shall see just how hospitable citizens of the world are to each other in this global crises. The disruption may drag on for weeks or even months. There is no predicting just how long the ash eruption will continue.
The fortunate part of the European experience is that they have a huge network of rapid railroad lines that connect cities large and small and cross from one country to another. There are ferries that cross the channel between England and the mainland continent. While hundreds of thousands of people are queuing up to get one seat or another on any train that is going anywhere in the general direction of home, at least they can do that. A trip that was 5 or 6 hours by air might now take 45 hours or longer.
In the US, we have designed our major long-distance transportation system based on a single mode of transport, air travel. There is Amtrak that operates at a skeleton level between cities. Amtrak is wholly unprepared to handle the influx of passengers who would be frantically jockeying for position should the American airspace be shutdown for an extended period of time. It would not be Amtrak's fault that it is ill-prepared for such an undertaking; it would be the fault of our elected Representatives and Senators who have systematically hamstrung the railroad by not adequately funding its infrastructure and service routes.
In September 2001 we got a taste of what the country would be like without air transportation. It was a two day disruption and we whined like babies at the loss of our freedom to travel. We have had a decade to do something about the shortcomings of our national transportation network. We did next to nothing to resolve those shortcomings for the next 8 years of the Bush Presidency. Just now in 2009-2010 there is a minor improvement in funding of railroad services and infrastructure investment. $1.4 billion was allocated to Amtrak and $8.4 billion was approved for rail development in the much maligned American Recession and Recovery Act that is more commonly referred to as the Stimulus Bill, That Socialist Bailout Bill, Massive Pork Bill, That Huge Waste of Taxpayers' Money, etc.
That level of funding is way too little and way too late in coming. The Principle of Imminent Collapse asserts that everything is on the verge of collapse and it only takes a nudge to precipitate the fall. It has corollary assertions that we can do something to minimize the impacts of the collapse and that a New Equilibrium will be established in the wake of the collapse. The problem is that the New Equilibrium may not include all of us, nor all of what we have become accustomed to.
When all ones eggs are in one basket, dropping the basket is a disaster. When all the systems are lined up like uniform dominoes (airports) they all go down together. The metaphors go on and on. The ash eruption may subside in a day or two and we get lucky. Air travel may return to normal in a week and all the anti-activists will have smug expressions on their faces. This Icelandic volcano is not the only one on the planet that can do this type of interruption.